The bench press is like the Cinderella of the powerlifts. The squat and the deadlift tend to be like Cinderella’s domineering sisters, who get all the attention, while the bench press is left in the corner to its own devices most of the time. The bench press is rarely given a cursory thought until it’s needed, after which it tends to be forgotten about again.
And just like Cinderella, the bench press is not quite what it seems. It is not simply a case of lying down, grabbing the bar, lowering it, and pressing it up. What would you say if I told you that one of the best ways to think about the first half of a bench press is actually in terms of a series of pulling motions?
With a little care and attention, the bench press can become the queen of the ball, or at least the king of the lifts. Let’s pay some attention to how we can spruce it up from an often casual lift to something that actually looks good.
1. Pull Your Shoulders Back and Down
Stop thinking about the bench press as a chest exercise, and start thinking of it as a full-body exercise. You need to set your whole body into a position that supports what you are trying to achieve, (which I am going to assume is to improve on your bench press as a means of increasing overall strength and performance while avoiding injury). Pulling your shoulders back and down into the bench will create tension in your back, and will help you drive your chest up and lock it in place. You’re now set to take hold of that bar.
2. Pull the Bar Out of the Rack
Anyone who has been coached by me on squats will tell you I am a massive advocate of unracking the bar with tension, vigor, and determination. Take the bar off the rack with anything less, and you already set yourself up at a disadvantage before you even start the lift. The bench press is no different. Be honest, do you press the bar or pull the bar out of the rack? Thought so.
Pressing the bar out of the rack loses you valuable tension through the shoulders and upper back. Here’s how to correct it. Make sure the pins are set up to a decent height, one that doesn’t mean you have to do half a bench press just to unrack the bar – just a small press. Set yourself as outlined in step one. If you have done this correctly, you should feel tension through the lats and shoulders. Now, literally pull the bar away from the rack with straight arms. This will not only help maintain the shoulder and back position you have worked so hard to set, but will cement it and put you in a great position ready to lift. Pull in the help of a spotter (see what I did there?) to help you with this, too.
3. Pull the Bar Apart
You’ve got that bar in your hands. But have you got that bar in your hands? I would hope you have more than a token grip on it, seeing as that bar is currently hovering above your windpipe. Your life pretty much depends on you keeping hold of it. Therefore, please grip that bar like your life depends on it. Gripping the bar hard will send a signal to the rest of your body that you mean business. This will help you tighten your whole body.
Don’t believe this cue can have that much of an effect? Try it. While you are at it, work on pulling the bar apart and around into itself, like you want the collars to meet at your feet. This will create torque on the bar and screw your upper back and shoulders into position even more.
4. Pull the Bar Down to You
Now that you have pulled the bar out of the rack and into position, and are gripping it tight and trying to pull it apart, it’s pretty uncomfortable, right? Then you’d better pull that bar down to your chest as quickly as possible so you can bounce it off your chest and drive it back up. That’s how it works, isn’t it? Hell no. Though I bet you see it happening that way more often than not.
Instead of doing that, consider utilizing that tension and position you have created. Actively pull the bar down to your chest, under control. There’s that word again – pull the bar down. Use your lats to set both the pace and the path of the bar.
5. Pull the Elbows In
As you are pulling the bar down, pull your elbows in. This will help you hold onto the tension you have already built up. It will also spread the load better across the chest, triceps, and shoulders. Do you perform push ups in this position, too? You should. It will do wonders for the longevity of your shoulders, improve your triceps strength, and help to groove the correct pressing pattern for the bench press.
Most lifters, when they first come to me for bench press coaching, press with their elbows flared out. I’ve put this down to three reasons. One, go to most non-specialist or globo gyms and it’s what you will see. Monkey see, monkey do. Two, for those with under-developed triceps strength, they can lift more weight like this. Three, the body has a way of finding and taking the path of least resistance. In this case, it’s with the elbows out. This is a recipe for rotator cuff issues and other shoulder injuries. But, of course, your body doesn’t care about long-term injury prevention. It is only concerned with doing the task you have given it. For all these reasons, one of the first corrections I make is to ensure the lifter tucks their elbows in. The elbows should be no more than a 45-degree angle from your torso.
I know I’ve given you a few things to consider regarding the bench press, but they become a lot easier to remember through this sequence of pulls. And after all of this, you are only half way through the lift! It’s a lot of work, and you will probably feel uncomfortable through it all, but what all this has accomplished is the utilization of your whole body right from the start of the bench press. This sets you up in the best possible way for the actual press part of the lift, which will be all the stronger for your focus on tension and position. Make sure you remain “switched on” at the bottom of the lift and now it is time to press. For that, stay tuned for part two of this article, which will take a look at how the second half of the lift can just as easily be split into a series of pressing cues.
Don’t wait about though. Pull yourself together, and put these into action right now. Your bench press will improve immediately. Try these cues and let me know how it goes in the comments below.
Photos courtesy of CrossFit Impulse.